One of the most significant daily rituals in Judaism is laying Tefilin, strapping leather boxes containing scrolls with certain Torah verses onto one’s arm (against the heart) and one’s forehead (against the brain). According to the Torah, it is to remind our hearts and minds of our religious and social obligations. Initially Tefilin would be worn all day long, except on Shabbat and festivals. But over time custom dictated putting them on only during morning services. Nevertheless, some individuals have continued to wear them all day.
According to Jewish Law, women were relieved of ritual obligations related to time, because they had to be allowed the freedom to tend to the demands of children and home without constantly being preoccupied with other obligations. Therefore, as a rule and convention, women have not worn Tefilin. But in a more flexible environment, and given the different roles that some women have adopted in recent years, there has been, both in Orthodox and non- Orthodox circles, a tendency for more and more women to want to put on Tefilin, even if it is not an obligation for them.
The decision of two schools in New York to allow girls who want to put them on during obligatory school services has created a storm in a teacup. Accusations of heresy and abandoning tradition have been hurled across the networks and blogs. Is this really so significant a challenge to the survival of traditional Judaism and mankind that it deserves so much attention? Or is it just another example of religious authority resisting any change on principle?
Judaism was always a way of life that emphasized doing, as much as thinking. Religious obligations were layered. At the top came the priests, whose daily regulations of ceremony and purity came with the obligation to look after the wider community as religious functionaries, teachers, doctors, and social workers. The layman had a raft of rules designed to get him to think about God and moral values at every stage in the working day. Women were relieved of obligations that were related to time, to give then the freedom to prioritize family and home over synagogue and public services. These differences were not issues of civil law, but exclusively ritual. They were indications not of superiority, but simply of different function.
The Talmud (Eiruvin 96a) mentions that Michal, the daughter of King Saul, wore Tefilin and no one objected. The Bible tells us that she had frowned on what she considered King David’s inappropriate public display of religious enthusiasm when he danced the tabernacle up into Jerusalem. She was punished for this by being barren. Her putting on Tefilin might have been thought of as an atonement or compensation. Alternatively, it might have been an example of the natural thing to do for a religious woman who had no obligation of children or housework to distract her. There are various sources that suggest that the medieval giant Rashi allowed his daughters to wear Tefilin. Perhaps this was in recognition of their significance in acting as his amanuenses and being so knowledgeable of Torah in their own right.
Jewish law allows one to take on extra obligations if one wishes to. The only issue in general is whether a voluntary act, as opposed to an obligatory one, requires a blessing or not.
The Talmud says that Tefilin should only be worn with a “clean body”. In medieval times some argued that women should be excluded from wearing Tefilin on the grounds that they could not control their periods. A typical medieval example of how women were regarded then. Because Biblically menstruation simply renders one unable to enter the sanctuary, as do a whole raft of other exclusions applicable to men as well as women, such as being in the same room as a dead person. That some societies regarded the menstrual period with fear and disgust is no more true to Judaism than objections to divorce. If that were the real reason for objecting to girls opting to wear Tefilin it could be argued that if men can be trusted to clean up, why not women too?